More Than a Mouthful

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I've been to Bocados several times now, and I'm still confused whether this cozy little Montrose cottage is a cafe or a club. By club, I mean in the sense not only of a nightclub, but also of a private, members-only sort of hangout.

It's not that I've gotten the cold shoulder, exactly, it's just that I've never felt entirely sure of my welcome. At weekday lunchtimes the waitstaffers often have that burned-out, don't-bother-me look of people out too late the night before. It's hard to get those little things that mean so much: silverware, an ashtray, the check. The customers, too, haughtily sport all-black garb and hollowed eyes, which by daylight juxtapose strangely with Bocados's three cheerfully painted rooms, sunny yellow and vibrant lime and happy lavender. It's like a cast of vampires starring in a production of Up With People.

The tables in the main dining room are fitted out with crisp linens, rainbow-colored Fiestaware and bright cloth napkins. Light streams in through the windows from the patio, and the artwork has a tropi-colored Caribbean feel. How strange, by contrast, is the hulking pair of industrial-strength Peavey speakers propped on metal tripods in the corners of that small room. Dozens of CD jewel cases are stacked on a battered folding table at the front of the room, along with a high-tech turntable and other oddments of DJ sound gear trailing power cords.



1312 West Alabama,


"Well, you know, we're really a club at night, especially on Wednesday nights. That's what all this stuff is for," explained the bartender. Wednesday night, he told me, is "ladies night" for the Montrose lesbian community. "We need some real powerful speakers for that," he added. That's when I noticed the red and blue police flashers atop the speakers. Hmm.

He proudly demonstrated the new turntable for me, which runs backward or forward at the touch of a button. Cardboard boxes and broken ice chests full of old LPs crowded the floor behind him. "I just love vinyl," he said, with a dreamy look on his face. "It's so cool."

When its cafe persona is uppermost, though, Bocados dishes out decent upscale Tex-Mex. It starts with paper-thin, crisp tortilla chips and a cup of world-class salsa: chunky with fresh tomatoes, sparked with cilantro, rough-cut onions and a respectable jolt of jalapeño. The salsa's served at room temperature, thank you, neither trendily heated nor icebox cold; I'd match it against any contender in town.

Perhaps my favorite plate is the "Bocaditos Sampler" ($13), a feast easily big enough for two. The centerpiece is a small dish of seviche, fresh and tart, plentifully stacked with shrimp, fish, tomatoes and bits of avocado. Two by two, little bites of other things ring the seviche, including a pair of outstanding crab cakes, plump, moist and just barely bread-crumbed, as well as battered-and-fried jalapeños stuffed with shrimp and mozzarella cheese. Those two crab cakes alone -- the pair $8 if ordered $agrave; la carte -- make the sampler a real bargain.

I loved the golden-brown, flaky pastry of the empanadas but got a little bored with the underseasoned filling of chicken, cheese and mushrooms. Similarly, the beauty of the quesadillas lies in the delicate housemade flour tortillas, not in the standard-issue stuff within, more cheese and chicken, ho hum. Fortunately there's plenty of good guacamole to swab over these lesser creations, and always more of that salsa for dipping.

As far as I can tell, the sampler platter really does round up the best of Bocados's appetizers. We strayed from it only once, to try the calamari ($7). The squid is lightly battered and deftly fried tender, and the serving size is generous enough to function as a full meal, but the thick marinara sauce was way too sweet for my taste, hijacked by too much tomato paste, I'd guess. So it was house salsa to the rescue, again.

For bigger meals, it's easy to choose from fewer than a dozen entrées. The menu is a minimalist masterpiece, a small card that quietly lists an item's name -- tortilla soup, say, or chili relleno -- followed by an unadorned single or double digit to indicate the price. "Wow, they've done away with decimal points," marveled a friend. "Not even a dollar sign!"

Snapper is offered either grilled or blackened ($14), and we were very happy with the blackened version. The fish fillet was perfectly flaky with just the right warmth of Cajun seasoning, and dressed with a light, seductive lemon-tequila sauce. If it hadn't been so masterfully done, we'd have been cranky with the surprisingly small serving; the palm-size fillet needed that pretty halo of oval-sliced steamed vegetables to fill out its big, bright plate.

The flautitas ($7) were crisp outside and filled with admirably moist chicken inside; good, but again, small. I understand that the word bocado in Spanish refers to "mouthful." I respect the notion of a more modest meal -- so many local restaurants over-portion, I think -- but I sometimes resent the disproportionate bite Bocados takes out of my wallet; more like a mordida than a bocado.

Speaking of bites, I lost interest three forkfuls into the egg-battered chili relleno ($8), stuffed with great gobs of melted cheese in which I discovered just a few lonely mushrooms. I found myself wishing for a little meat, maybe, or an extra veggie or two, anything to break up the mozzarella monotony. The rice and beans that accompanied it, on the other hand, were superlative. The red Mexican rice was fine-grained and firm, with an almost nutty flavor. The pinto beans were served soupy charro-style with lots of smoky bits of pork bobbing about. By then we were on our second basket of those gorgeous tortillas, so I wasn't totally overwhelmed by snapper envy.

At dessert time the real winner was the sinfully rich chocolate tres leches. The rough, spongy texture of the cream-soaked cake was so satisfying, iced and drizzled with chocolate, we could have wallowed in it. I'd heard such good things about Bocados's key lime pie, and sure enough, it had an intense lime flavor, but the custard was strangely heavy. And the flan that day, oh dear, was an outright disaster, its caramelized topcoat tasting unmistakably burned.

It was at that point, in my last visit to Bocados, that I got downright peevish. It's hard to put on a happy face when your flan's burned, the CD is stuck for the third time in 30 minutes, and the only waitress is entangled in a deeply personal 20-minute phone call. So it's hard to say for sure: Am I too testy, or is this no fun? Bocados is either a nightclub with really great food or a restaurant with decent but overpriced Tex-Mex. You figure it out. My advice? Stick with the appetizers, or splurge on the snapper, and above all, be sure to wear black.

Bocados, 1312 West Alabama, (713)523-5230

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